18 May 2009

Michael Martin: A Parliamentary Piñata

Well, the statement has been and gone. On paper, it looked like everything it needed to be: contrite, sober, measured. Everything that was required of Michael Martin last week when he instead opted to fly off the handle at Kate Hoey and Norman Baker. With that, the story moved on and the question on every political geek's lips (and beyond that narrow circle, following its lack of discussion in the statement) is whether, and when, the Speaker of the House of Commons will hand over to another. But the Member for Glasgow North East failed to answer it. Once again, he's one week behind the times.

Of course, he's being cast as the central villain of the piece: he has presided over the House at its darkest hour, when Members have been exposed as benefit cheats writ large, though for sums far exceeding the odd bit of cash-in-hand work as a joiner. This is his mess, cry the critics, and he has failed to deal with it. Therefore, he is part of the problem. Therefore, he cannot provide the solution. Therefore, he should stand aside.

And his own expenses claims leave a lot to be desired: the family junkets. The chauffeur-driven ride to Celtic Park. Though, in fairness, this last one makes sense: no one should have to drive to Parkhead as there is no way that a car parked up and left unattended could remain unmolested for any more than ten minutes around that shi- sorry, getting distracted by the title race, moving on...

Anyway. The claims are pathetic, and his alleged defence ("I have been a trade unionist all my life. I did not come into politics not to take what is owed to me"), a blatant confession that he sees politics as little more than a gravy train, show an element of hubris that makes his posiiton even more ridiculous. I daresay it's also frustrating for the trade union activists in workplaces up and down the UK who spend their time doing, you know, actual work and getting little more than a thank-you for the extra task of representing their co-workers.

Nevertheless, let's look at some of the more ridiculous claims. He hasn't used expense money for a moat. He hasn't used it for a house that is neither near Parliament nor in his Constituency. He hasn't claimed that he didn't realise he'd finished repaying his mortgage. He doesn't boycott Parliament but claim Parliamentary expenses for accommodation in London. Yet while copious amounts of newsprint, airtime and bile are extended towards those guilty of those offences (though the last one has passed by far more quietly than it should have done, if you ask me) , the circus has moved from them to the next carpetbagger du jour. Michael Martin, meanwhile, has been under unrelenting pressure right from the start.

And let's be honest: it is his fault that Douglas Hogg's moat allegedly got cleared at our expense? Not really. Is it his fault that Margaret Moran claimed for repairs to a house that had bugger all to do with her work as a Parliamentarian (it may be the family home, and dry rot might be a bastard to sort out, but still, I'd love to see my boss's face if I billed work for the £250 I spent re-decorating my bedroom a few months ago)? Not really. Is it his fault that Elliot Morley claims not to have noticed that his monthly outgoings suddenly fell? Not really. Is it his fault that Sinn Féin are so opposed to the UK's presence in Northern Ireland that they refuse to represent their Constituents in the Chamber of the House of Commons, but not so opposed to it that they refuse to claim re-imbursement from Parliamentary authorities for accommodation in London? Again, not really. Politicians of all partisan hues have been caught with their hands in the biscuit tin and all of them have no one to blame but themselves. Yes, the expenses regime is ridiculous, but they didn't have to take advantage of it. So we should be wary of treating Michael Martin like a scapegoat.

There is still a case for the defence of Michael Martin, albeit a tattered and tarnished one. He had, in Betty Boothroyd, a hard act to follow. She was a bluff, no-nonsense working class woman, who stamped her authority on proceedings but did so with grace and poise. She was popular with all sides of the House (and despite being Labour MP, was elevated to the Speakership at a time when the Tories had a majority in the Commons) and it wouldn't surprise me if a fair number of MPs fantasised about her calling their Right Honourable Member to order, if you'll forgive a brief descent into smut. Michael Martin, however, is no Betty Boothroyd.

It didn't help that there were rumblings in 2000 from the Tory benches that it was 'their turn' to provide a Speaker, that the post typically alternated between the two parties. Betty Boothroyd had been a Labour MP, so it was a Tory's turn. But Boothroyd won the post as a result of a Tory Backbench rebellion. Bernard Wetherill, a Tory, was elected following the 1983 Tory landslide; George Thomas (Labour) had been elected in 1976 during the Labour Government; Selwyn Lloyd became Speaker during the Heath Government and Horace King did so during the first Wilson Government. Before that, the Tories had provided every Speaker but one since 1905, and that single exception - J. H. Whitley (1921-1928) - had been a Coalition Liberal so had sat on the Government benches with the Tories, who supported David Lloyd George's Government at the time. Therefore, Boothroyd was the first Speaker since Sir James Abercromby (also the last Speaker to represent a Scottish Constituency before Martin) in 1835 who did not come from the same Party as the sitting or emerging Prime Minister. The whole 'taking turns' thing was and is nonsense, but the Tories persisted with it and it's a point of grudge and those who are concerned at the prospect of three consecutive Labour Speakers might want to bear in mind the four consecutive Tory Speakers from 1928 to 1965. Nevertheless, it was used as a stick with which to beat the present Speaker.

Further, there's always been a contemptuous sneer in the direction of "Gorbals Mick", as the right-wing press know him. For some on the Tory benches, he's too working-class (Betty Boothroyd had a working-class background but not the accent), too unreconstucted Labour, perhaps too Glaswegian. There is a section of Parliament that has never taken to Michael Martin, and never would have, whatever he did. I have some sympathy for Tom Harris (no, really!) when he opines:

Yes, [Douglas Carswell] feels he has good reason to put down a motion this week, but if it wasn’t expenses, it would be Damian Green, and if it wasn’t Damian Green it would be something else. Of course Douglas wants Michael Martin to step down — it is after all, a day with a “y” in it.

So having followed a tough act, and having the odds stacked against him, it's been clear right from the start that Michael Martin has had to work twice as hard as his predecessor to do half as well.

This is a good time to turn to the case for the prosecution.

To put it simply, he hasn't done so. He's had eight and a half years to turn people around and failed. He's happy to break with precedent and allow police to come trooping into Parliamentary offices, and confiscate an MP's computer and records during the Damien Green affair, but allow an FOI request on MPs' expenses? Hell no! And the reports on what Parliamentarians are claiming isn't the fault of the MPs themselves for claiming it, but the fault of the nasty press for telling people, and MPs like Kate Hoey and Norman Baker who believe that something stinks are jumped on for airing that view. So his approach in the Damien Green story, and in this present tale are consistent in only one way: they are both on the wrong side of public opinion.

Further, the hubris he has shown until today on the matter is absolutely the wrong approach. The Holyrood expenses system has been used as a model for Westminster, but recent revelations show that even now, MSPs are not immune to the snot/trough interface scenario. But when tales of MSPs on the make have emerged, Presiding Officers (especially George Reid) have been quick to react, not by blaming the press or the public for being outraged, but by changing the system, making it tighter and so showing people that the system can work if you give it a chance, and give the people in it a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop new and better ways of doing things. Michael Martin has opted to circle the wagons, and reviews now (even ongoing ones) are seen as far too little, far too late, particularly when this controversy has been brewing for ages. He should have acted. He should have read public opinion. He didn't. Is it too late to parachute George Reid into Westminster?

And far from turning hostile voices around, he has turned potential supporters and allies against him: Labour backbenchers are signing Douglas Carswell's no-confidence motion against him, for heaven's sake! The LibDems, who one imagines are far less averse to Michael Martin than the Tories, have reached such exasperation that even their Leader has called for his departure. In short, Michael Martin is running out of supporters and running out of time.

And his job is a particularly sensitive one: how can his most trenchant critics, Kate Hoey, Douglas Carswell, Norman Baker and Nick Clegg get treatment that is both fair and seen to be fair from the Speaker now? How can he credibly keep order in the House of Commons if Members from all parts of it want him out of that job?

Being Speaker is not like being in Government: you would expect on Opposition to want a Government out, you would expect an Opposition to challenge the things that Ministers do. But the Speaker is an honest broker, responsible for and to the entire House, and all of its Members, requiring their confidence and good will every day. It's bad enough that a number of MPs never had any confidence in him in the first place (though that's a poor reflection on them for their prejudice), but now that others are losing confidence in him - and their numbers are growing by the day - Michael Martin's position becomes less and less tenable. It's not enough merely to avoid Douglas Carswell's no-confidence vote and it wouldn't be enough to survive it either: that MPs should feel strongly enough to table it and make a serious attempt to depose a Speaker for the first time since 1695 is a sign that the Michael Martin has already lost: he needs the confidence (or, as a bare minimum, the indulgence) of the entire House and he no longer has it.

In short: he has always faced a massive challenge but has failed to rise to it; he has failed to tackle the issues threatening to undermine the status of the House of Commons; he has failed to win over his critics despite having eight and a half years to do so and he has lost supporters.

And that, sadly, is why I believe he has to go.


Stuart Winton said...

A fine analysis, but I think some of the initial 'prejudice' was well-founded - he was clearly always out of his depth.

Richard T said...

It seems to me that his offence is partly that he did not see the tide coming in about transparency on expenses and partly, when it washing over the seawall, spending a lot of money trying to send it back. My take is that on a personal level, he is a decent man, perhaps out of his depths, who has been traduced by english arseholes like Quentin Letts and the Tories. However, politically he is typical of the central stalinists who have paralysed labour here.

Ted Harvey said...

Right now I'm getting news that Michael Martin is to resign at 2.30om today. I knew that the likes was coming when Gordon Brown ratted walked out on him at the first possible opportunity yesterday in that fracas of a Speaker's statement.

Richard T put it well when he said that Martin's 'offence' was that he did not see the tide coming in about transparency etc. Richard also, however, speaks of a 'decent man'... well OK, I don't know about the man personally. I know only about his public persona and history and that is not especially my idea of great decency.

I'm also not sure what makes an 'arsehole' and 'english arsehole; but the public persona of Martin reflects that of much of a certain cadre of Scottish Labour MPs (often of trade union origin) who have a dire reputation of bluff, bullying and lack of transparency, and strange associates (and of course, who ultimately accrue considerable wealth whilst they preside for many, many, years over some of the poorest constituencies in the UK).

A telling comment was made to me last night when it was observed that the most prominent defenders (Sheridan, ‘Lord’ Foulkes) of Michael Martin in recent days are much of a sameness; a terrier dog-like attacking form of defence, a just not knowing of the public alienation from the entire parliamentary and political party process, an unblinking refusal to countenance anything wrong about Michael Martin - with the implicit purity and cleanliness of themselves. On several occasions over the past week I have heard ‘Lord’ Foulkes assert on the Michael Martin debacle that other MPs ‘are not telling the truth’ – including one of his Labour MPs. Beadle Bumble.

The Michael Martin persona along with these other assembled characters represent why many of us gave up long ago on what used to be called the ‘Labour Movement’ – it became a stalinist (without the murders), macho and clique driven, self-serving and opportunist, opaque and unlearning institution - an adjunct of the British establishment and nowhere more subservient to Establishment rites-of-passage and venality than in its Scottish fiefdom.

By the way, the named ‘english arseholes’ all seem to be Tories… is the Labour ‘Sir’ Stuart Bell also an ‘english arsehole’ given his quite appalling and embarrassing apologia for Michael Martin over the past weeks?

My take on all this is that the tawdry end of Michael Martin, alongside the debacle that the Blair/ Brown regime became, and the catastrophe that hit the ‘Scottish’ financial institutions is beginning to seem as though it may be looked back on as the end of the high point of the Scottish interest in a slowly and messily dissembling British Union.